How do we restore trust in our church after the sex abuse crisis?

Photo by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

The church in the United States faces a crisis of both trust and hope. As the bishops gather for their first national meeting since this summer’s revelations of sexual abuse in the church, it is clear that while they must make reforms, they cannot succeed alone. Nonetheless, there is hope to be found on this slow and difficult path.

One reason for hope is that the zero-tolerance policies put in place by the Dallas Charter following the 2002 scandals have, in fact, worked; today, new allegations of misconduct are dealt with swiftly and through the proper legal channels. Yet the church is still haunted by the history of decades of  failures.

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In the wake of revelations of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s history of abuse and harassment and the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing predation by more than 300 priests over 50 years, Catholics are left asking: Why should I stay? Who can I believe? How can I raise a child in this church?

The bishops can use their annual fall gathering to establish a baseline for credible reform.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has acknowledged that he has “no illusions about the degree to which trust in the bishops has been damaged” and that it “will take work to rebuild that trust.”

The bishops can use their annual fall gathering from Nov. 12 to Nov. 14, which will be focused on these questions, to begin that long-term work by affirming three basic principles to guide those efforts and establish a baseline for credible reform.

First, the bishops should commit themselves to a national standard for transparency about sex abuse records. Since the Pennsylvania report, at least a dozen state attorneys general and the U.S. Justice Department have launched investigations into abuse claims against the church.

Another hopeful sign is that  many dioceses in these states have said they will fully cooperate with civil authorities. Others, including all 15 dioceses in Texas, have said they will proactively release the names of members of the clergy who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing a child. The U.S.C.C.B. and the heads of religious orders can both respect survivors of abuse and spare the faithful the protracted agony of state-by-state, year-by-year revelations of tragic failures by making a comprehensive commitment to account for this history—and by involving outside legal experts in the process.

Second, the bishops should pledge to include laypeople, particularly parents and women, in every meeting where decisions are made about the handling of sex abuse allegations or holding those who failed to protect children accountable. As John Carr, who worked at the U.S. bishops’ conference for decades, wrote in these pages, it is too easy for priests and bishops to look at allegations of abuse “through the eyes of a brother priest.... [But] through the eyes of a father, this was the worst thing that could happen short of the death of a child” (Am., 10/15). Where canonical structures stand in the way of involving laypeople in these roles, the bishops should petition for them to be changed for the good of the church.

Our hope lies in responding more as a community seeking justice and reconciliation than as an institution managing a crisis.

Third, and most important, every step taken in response to the ongoing fallout of this crisis should be tested by the question: Does this provide justice and healing to survivors of sexual abuse? To our great shame, the church in the past has treated victims’ reports of their abuse as public relations disasters to be quieted or financial liabilities to be managed. We can no longer afford to be driven by fear—of public scandal and shaming, of lawsuits and bankruptcy.

What is owed to those who have suffered harm at the hands of the church is indeed incalculable, and the cost may be deeply felt by bishops, priests and laypeople who bear no responsibility for these crimes. But our hope lies in responding more as a community seeking justice and reconciliation than as an institution managing a crisis. We must pray, therefore, for the grace to proceed boldly wherever the painful truth of our failures leads us, trusting in the One who is faithful to the end.

[Explore America's in-depth coverage of Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church.]

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Bruce Snowden
2 weeks 4 days ago

As the devastating tsunami of sexual abuse of pre-pubescent children and others by priests, Bishops, even a wayward former Cardinal, Popes too have sinfully erred, continue sending its hot sulfuric stench throughout the Church everywhere really, causing fury, and feelings of disbelief and shame by many Catholics, there is still plenty of room for songs and happy dancing, recalling the promises of our Lord and Brother Jesus, “I am with you all days even to the end of time.” And Jesus’ other assurance,. “The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against you .

JESUS IS GOING TO WIN THIS ONE FOR US, AGAIN! It is the greatest catastrophe in the Catholic Church since the Reformation! Even as great I believe as the Original Sin in Eden, the sin of Betrayal and Denial, the gut-rot root of all sin, as in the vicinity of the Upper Room on that First Holy Thursday and the First Eucharist, much more, along with all other “upper rooms” gestating in sin, its indelibility dissolved only in Calvary’s Sacrificial Blood!

But the Lord walks with us in the fray repeating to Pope Francis words first spoken to Francis of Assisi, “Francis, rebuild My Church which is falling into ruin!” Holy Father Francis is already deep into that commission. Unfortunately he is being battered by some who should be high fiving his obedience to Jesus. Our mysterious God with infinite knowhow-ability will clear the putrid air now circulating in the Church, making that which is ever ancient, once again ever new. It will surprise many as to how God does it. Ecumenically I suggest! This is where trust in the Church still resides. In the Promises of Jesus. The termites of sin will find the Wood of the Church one and the same as the Wood of the Cross and totally indigestable!

sheila gray
2 weeks 1 day ago

Thank you for these ideas, these words, these tiny lights in the darkness all around. Not trying to be dramatic. I just appreciate someone else expressing the reality we all occupy together right now. The only way forward is... love. You know, the good stuff. The stuff that actually works to change hearts and minds. This survivor was forced to leave organized religion decades ago. But all these 25,000+ days & nights later I still find that faith, hope and love lead to the only answers currently available. Fare forward, voyagers!

Venus Majeski
1 week 6 days ago

Why would the Bishop’s recommendations include, in a very real way, the participation of the laity in decisions when the recent synod concluded without any participation of women? Be seen and not heard is the prevailing thought. And while several examples of transparency are offered in this article, there is no mention of the Diocese of Buffalo and the great turmoil which has its roots in obfuscation and clericalism. My guess is that there are many Diocese following the Buffalo example. And yet we, as people of faith and hope, often find comfort in the hollow words presented in articles such as this one. Personally, I find no comfort only continual disappointment and brokenness in the truth which is so very obvious- the only change is in the words but certainly not the actions.

Alan Martin
1 week 6 days ago

This article is actually a nice one it assists new web viewers and people who are wishing to learn blog writing. I have one top recommendation for best writing services for Essay Writing Service UK and Nursing Dissertation help

Annette Magjuka
1 week 6 days ago

I suggest that clergy and the hierarchy read Jill Stauffer’s brilliant work, Ethical Loneliness:The Injustice of Not Being Heard, for some real paths to healing.

Annette Magjuka
1 week 6 days ago

I suggest that clergy and the hierarchy read Jill Stauffer’s brilliant work, Ethical Loneliness:The Injustice of Not Being Heard, for some real paths to healing.

Annette Magjuka
1 week 6 days ago

I suggest that clergy and the hierarchy read Jill Stauffer’s brilliant work, Ethical Loneliness:The Injustice of Not Being Heard, for some real paths to healing.

Stephen Samenuk
1 week 6 days ago

Where is it, editors, where you publicly name guilty bishops and cardinals for withholding information on these scandals, and remove them immediately? The Buffalo bishop is a screaming example of this. You American Magazine editors are cowards.

Greg Heck
1 week 3 days ago

That sounds like "business as usual" with a few tweaks. Good luck with that!

Javier von Sydow
1 week 1 day ago

I would suggest that the crisis is not only one of trust but of faith as well. However, taking into account the American idiosyncrasy and culture, I would also suggest that a serious and complete study by an institution such as the Rand Corporation think tank be commissioned by the U.S.C.C.B., to prepare a report on the entire situation of this type of crimes in the United States throughout all segments of the population including the church but certainly not just the Church. Once the faithful understand the reality, the numbers and the depth of the problem in society at large as well as in the church and the origins for such behaviors will you reach a lasting solution. There will be no peace without Justice and Justice is to give to each it's own. The church is only part of our society. Pinning it all in the church distorts the faithful view of a broad and hidden problem.

F C
1 week 1 day ago

All the suggestions made are needed - however, without addressing at source the abuse of power, which is endemic to the Church, they will have limited effects. Also missing is the need to radically rethink the Church's understanding of human sexuality - which is both richer and emphatically more diverse than the strictest needs of procreation require. Moreover, so the evidence shows, this surplus contributes to a fruitful life. Turning the whole of human sexuality over to procreation is against experience, reason and factual knowledge of the world and in itself leads to an assault on human beings.

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